The Threat of Industrial Action on the University Sector -- how did it happen?

15.2.2018

The employees' organizations were looking for a moderate, fair compromise aimed to improve the working conditions of university employees at all levels; research, teaching, working time management, remote work, salaries, shop steward system.
The employees' organizations were looking for a moderate, fair compromise aimed to improve the working conditions of university employees at all levels; research, teaching, working time management, remote work, salaries, shop steward system.
One particular goal of the employees' organizations was to address the situation of those researchers and teachers who work under fixed-term contracts.
One particular goal of the employees' organizations was to address the situation of those researchers and teachers who work under fixed-term contracts.

The recent strike warning issued at the University of Helsinki is a measure intended to facilitate the deadlocked negotiations for a collective employment agreement for Finnish universities. The reasons for this impassé can be found primarily in the employer's unwillingness to pay any attention to the proposals made by the trade unions which represent the university employees.

The official notification of industrial action for the university sector, issued on February 13th, has raised questions of the events which have forced the main contracting organizations to undertake such a measure. The constant difficulties in the negotiations for a new collective agreement were regularly reported both by the Public Sector Professionals as well as the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers. After the strike warning on Tuesday, the employer's side and various universities have distributed their own information on this matter. At this point, it is only proper to explain the negotiations somewhat more extensively.

The Universities of Helsinki and Jyväskylä have recently published more or less identical bulletins, seeking to portray the university employer's goals as attempts to "reform the university salary system", by "simplifying the evaluation process of the performance level", which is currently "heavy, burdensome, and frustrating also to the employees". The clash over the salary system has thus been presented as a harmless attempt at reform, thwarted by the trade unions' resistance. Already on February 8th, a week after the collective university agreement expired, the University of Tampere also published its own bulletin on the attempts to "simplify" the salary system, and to make the performance evaluation "more supportive and flexible". The Finnish newspapers have reported that the strike warning is simply a protest against the suggested 2,1% salary raise, which has been deemed too low.

These bulletins have neglected to mentioned that the proposals which the Association of Finnish Independent Education Employers made in the negotiations would have meant de facto salary cuts at lower performance levels. The employer's side kept on insisting on a more or less unilateral power to determine the performance level and thus dictate wages. The employer expressed little willingness to do any calculations or evaluations of potential consequences. Given that the personal performance salary component is already susceptible to unilateral decisions, accepting the employer's demands would have sealed such arbitrary practices and, in practice, made them official. Considering that the personal performance level can be re-evaluated at the end of each fixed-term contract, and given that the employer showed very little desire to discuss the problems of fixed-term contracts, this demand was particularly blatant. Under these circumstances, the unions representing the university employees could not accept such proposals. The employees' organizations were otherwise quite ready to reform the salary system and look for a more fair and just settlement. The Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers was seeking salary increases for lower performance levels, which would have benefited early-stage researchers.

The salary question, however, was never the main issue for the employees' organizations. Neither was the recent strike warning primarily provoked by the suggested modest 2,1% salary increase. The trade unions representing the university employees were looking for an overall fair deal, a workable compromise, which would have improved the working conditions of the university community on all levels. The employees' organizations wanted to hold on to the teachers' time management plans, clarify the definition of contact teaching, and also ensure that researchers and teachers would be guaranteed a period during which they could focus primarily on research instead of teaching and administration. Above all, the negotiators wanted to address successive fixed-term contracts, which persistently remain the bane of the Finnish university sector. One way to improve this matter was through the shop steward system. The employer tended to have a more or less diametrically opposite perspective on all these matters. The main problem, however, was that this part of the employees' agenda was never really even discussed. The employer's side turned the clash over the salary system and the desire for a greater power with a carte blanche into a massive stumbling-block during the negotiations. As the collective bargaining continued and reached the deadline of the existing contract, all other issues turned into hostages in a process dominated only by one, single issue, over which the employer insisted on decisive say.

The strike warning and the potential industrial action are primarily intended to break this impassé in the negotiations. The current dead end is the result of the employer's consistently hard line. We hope and we trust that our members understand this decision. Several matters are at stake in these negotiations, and the trade unions which represent the university employees have done their best, presenting initiatives which could address the real problems in the university sector and truly improve the atmosphere and working conditions in universities. Trade unions have thus wanted to work on behalf of our common education institution. Meanwhile, the attitude of the employer has displayed a very unilateral mindset and a desire to dictate rather than to negotiate, often in a very authoritarian fashion.

The negotiations for a new collective university agreement are now subjected to the mediation of the national conciliator-general. We expect that a solution will be reached, but we also remind our members that the current situation should be taken very seriously, and we ask everyone to display solidarity towards our colleagues and towards a potential strike at the University of Helsinki. Since this is a common matter, and since we are looking for a new collective agreement for the entire university sector, we ask everyone to prepare for similar situation also here in Tampere.


Jussi Jalonen
Ph.D., University of Tampere, SOC/History
PR-Officer, Tampere University Association of Researchers and Teachers
Chairman of the Strike Committee, Public Sector Professionals / Akava